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Jul 22, 2014 10:12 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

An Architect Of Golf And The American Dream

Jul 22, 2014 10:27 AM

This past weekend, while the greatest golfers in the world negotiated the ancient golf links of Scotland, author James R. Hansen sat at the entrance to Montauk Downs State Park Golf Course, signing copies of his new book, “A Difficult Par,” about the life of Robert Trent Jones Sr., designer of some of the New World’s most celebrated golf courses.

Mr. Jones Sr. is also the architect of record at Montauk Downs, one of two state-owned courses he designed, which hosted Mr. Hansen for book signings this week. The course’s golf holes, snaking over the highest hilltop in Montauk, offer a snapshot of many of the features that became Jones Sr.’s signature design style—from flashing greenside bunkers to tight fairways to undulating greens—as well as those of his son, East Hampton resident Rees Jones, who oversaw the original construction of the course in 1968 and recently did a pro-bono update to the course’s layout for the state.

The youngest son of Mr. Jones Sr., who died in 2000 at age 93, said the sometimes-not-so-flattering account of Mr. Jones’s rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches life story is an honest account of the epic life his dad lived.

“Jim did a fabulous job of talking about the American dream through the game of golf,” Rees Jones said this week. “Even for non-golfers, it’s a fascinating read. It’s got the great points of the Joneses’ history and some difficult points. It’s very truthful.”

Mr. Hansen, a professor of history at Auburn University and author of a number of books on aerospace subjects, including the Challenger space shuttle disaster and a Neil Armstrong biography, said he’d always wanted to do a book about golf and settled on Robert Trent Jones Sr. as his subject many years ago.

“It’s kind of an epic American story,” Mr. Hansen said. “He lived virtually the entire 20th century. He was this immigrant boy, his father built railroad cars, he didn’t graduate from high school, and through this incredible determination he becomes the most prolific golf course architect in the world.”

Born in England, Jones’s family moved to the United States when he was 5. Growing up in a blue-collar family, he became a skilled golfer as a youth on the public courses of upstate New York, working as a caddy and eventually as a club professional. But as he watched the game of golf, the equipment and the skills of golfers evolve, he was drawn to golf course design as a part of the game. With the aid of benefactors, he attended Cornell University’s renowned horticulture program for two years and landed a job afterward with Canadian golf course designer Stanley Thompson.

During The Great Depression, he struck out on his own and labored, and struggled, at the profession, building golf courses funded by the works projects of the New Deal, gradually developing his architectural style. The courses he worked on would bring little acclaim, but his work on and philosophy of golf course design did earn him a reputation in golf circles, and when the famed golfer Bobby Jones, creator of Augusta National, asked one of the club’s professionals about architects that could help him do an update to the course, Jones’s name came up.

The pair’s initial collaboration turned the course’s par-3 16th hole from what golfers had called the worst hole on the course to the famed showcase of golf that it is now.

And the work he did at Augusta made an impression on Bobby Jones, who next hired Jones to collaborate with him on the design of a new club he was planning to build just outside of Atlanta.

The features the pair crafted into Peachtree Golf Club, completed in 1948, would become the signatures of Robert Trent Jones Sr. course designs, Hansen says. Greenside bunkers with high fronts, making them visible, and intimidating, to golfers hitting approach shots from the fairway. Fairways that narrow or turn just where a well-struck drive might land. Greens that sweep in various directions.

Jones, Hansen recounts, liked to say that a golf hole should be a difficult par but an easy bogey. “I would argue that many of his holes wouldn’t even be an easy bogey,” the author said.

Peachtree may have made Jones’s name in golf circles, but it was his work at Oakland Hills Country Club in Michigan, and an assessment of it by one of golf’s greatest figures, that brought him international renown.

Oakland Hills was already an old golf course, designed by Donald Ross—architect of Pinehurst’s celebrated links—and host to two U.S. Opens. But its challenges were being outpaced by the rapid improvements of professional golfers’ skills.

Robert Trent Jones Sr. had seen the skills far exceeding the tests that golf courses presented and had, for years, been building a data set that would help the courses fight back. Using measurements he’d taken at tournaments around the country of how far the best golfers were hitting the ball, Jones would push tee boxes farther back, narrow the fairways in the areas where the good shots were aimed, and line them with deep, thick stands of rough to cripple the striker of an errant shot.

When the 1951 U.S. Open was played at Oakland Hills, the course punished the game’s best players for three days. It wasn’t until the final round that any player would shoot a score below par. One of those rounds was posted by the tournament’s champion, Ben Hogan, who would later say: “I finally brought this course, this monster, to its knees.”

“What he did at Oakland Hills changed golf course architecture,” Rees Jones said of his father. “He turned it into a true test. That’s been the USGA model ever since.”

The course became widely referred to as “The Monster,” and Jones’s reputation after that was cemented worldwide. Shortly thereafter, The New Yorker featured an article about him, the first time a golf course architect had been the focus of such a mainstream feature, making him the preeminent American golf course architect.

“He became the architect that golfers loved to hate,” Hansen said. “The deep rough, tight landing areas, deep bunkers and risk-reward opportunities were his signatures. He loved a few holes that required that kind of heroic play.”

The United States Golf Association quickly tapped him to remake many of the country’s greatest courses as they were prepared for tournaments, particularly the U.S. Open Championship, the USGA’s premier event. He became known as the “Open Doctor” for the surgery he performed to make the courses more daunting and challenging for golfers. Names like Olympic, Congressional, Baltusrol and Augusta National got the Robert Trent Jones Sr. treatment, some of them multiple times over the years.

And, down the list a bit, sits Montauk Downs.

Jones would go on to design some 350 golf courses in 28 countries, and redesign more than 150 more. At renowned courses like Valderama, he brought American-style designs and turf grasses to a European golf landscape.

There were ups and downs. Late in life, even as his two sons climbed to the ranks of the most respected architects of their own day, Jones’s own status flagged, and he struggled financially. Were it not for the Alabama Teachers Association pension fund investing in an ambitious project to build more than two dozen golf courses, known as the Robert Trent Jones Trail, Hansen says, he would have gone broke. As it was, he passed on leaving a legacy that spanned the globe.

“He liked to say,’ Hansen recalled, “that the sun never sets on a Robert Trent Jones golf course.”

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Great article Michael
By Jac-man (21), Southampton on Jul 22, 14 6:03 PM
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